English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3
2. Beowulf 1
3. Beowulf 2
4. Middle Ages
6. Sir Gawain
9. Wife of Bath
11. Biblical Drama
12. Play of Mankind
14. Thomas More
15. Philip Sidney
16. Print Culture
17. Walter Raleigh
18. Twelfth Night 1
19. Twelfth Night 2
20. Civil War
22. Aphra Behn
23. Reading Papers
25. Rape of the Lock
27. New God
*** 22. Aphra Behn ***
READINGS FOR THIS LESSON
Romance in a slave colony
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at SUNY Learning Network.
Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the final essay Some other journaling ideas for today include:
Courtly writers in the
17th and 18th centuries took further the exploration of
sexuality begun in medieval and early modern romance. Feminism can be said to
have begun in this period--not in popular writing
(certainly not in Protestant or religious writing) but
in coterie writing, private circulation of manuscripts
among aristocratic women. Aphra Behn
(1640-1689) and other coterie writers shared a
commitment that women’s intellectual and spiritual
equal to men’s, if different from men's, and ought to be given voice.
For examples, see the perspectives section in our
anthology (pp 2327-2345).
Behn's grave in Westminster Abbey where Virginia Woolf wants the fllowers.
“The Disappointment” (p 2269) uses conventional military imagery to set up tensions of sexual power. Lysander seems all powerful: Chloris can “defend herself no longer”; she “wants power”; she admits “the conquest of [her] heart.” He is “unused to fear” as well as “capable of love,” and looks on her nearly naked body as “The spoils and trophies of the enemy.” It is a mock-heroic encounter, however. The military build up makes Lysander's impotence all the more embarrassing.
In “To Lysander at the Music-Meeting” (p 2274) Behn reverses the usual terms of the (male) gaze, visually and descriptively eroticizing the female. Here the beloved object is a sexy young man in a suggestive pose.
In "To the Fair Clarinda Who Made Love to Me" (p 2277) the subject is lesbianism. As the introduction to Behn’s works in context mentions, shaping the poems as letters (to Lysander, to Mr. Creech [p 2275], to the fair Clarinda) gives them an almost voyeuristic intimacy for the reader, who seems to be reading the private, explicit love letters of a stranger. The confessional nature of the poetry carries over into the "true history" of Oroonoko.
Left: poet, playwright, journalist Mrs. Aphra Behn (1640-1689).
Fact or Fiction?
But Behn proposes that Oroonoko is a recollection of actual events and stories actually told to her in about 1663 or 1664. It is unprecedented in its disturbing portrayal of gender, class and race. The story “examines what it means to be powerless in a society where, despite Christian pretenses and protestations, power is everything” (George Starr, “Aphra Behn and the Genealogy of the Man of Feeling,” Modern Philology 87:4 : 362).
Behn in fact may have been the daughter of
certain she visited there--so
she indeed may have been present at some of the events she describes,
possibly could have heard about other events from participants.
The narrator repeatedly claims that she was an
“eyewitness” to much of the story, and the rest she
fills in “from the mouth of the chief actor,” Oroonoko
himself, or his French assistant. Oroonoko was sold to
overseer of the plantation where she stayed, so she came to know him, to establish
friendship and trust—and eventually to become the “female pen to
celebrate his fame.” This is what the narrator says,
despite the story's unrealistic details like Oroonoko's admiration
by the men that he sold into slavery (p 2300-2301).
Readers have often doubted the truth of the story, but
an alternate source for Oroonoko never has been
Where did she go? Why? How could she not foresee that Oroonoko would be executed? How could she have prevented the execution, even had she been present, given Oroonoko's killing of his wife, his unborn child and several guards, not to mention wounding the governor, himself and others? The Stuart idea that a king is above the law is at play here. Behn's royalist loyalties appear to have blinded her to her hero's bad character and misdeeds.
Nonetheless, the evils of the slave trade are vividly portrayed. Oroonoko is a classic of the abolition movement, decades prior to the popularity of that movement and a century before the outlawing of slavery first in Great Britain (1772) and then throughout the British empire (1809). Behn must have assumed that this work would be controversial. She was never one to shun controversy.
Oroonoko the book in its original cover
To Behn the royalist,
Oroonoko's tragedy is reminiscent of the execution of
Charles I and
the helplessness of the last Stuart king,
who fled from the
Glorious Revolution of 1688, the same year as the
publication of Behn's book. Like many 17th
and 18th century writers, Behn in the end puts herself as writer in a position of
final and immortalizing authority: “Yet, I hope, the
reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his
glorious name to survive all ages, with that of the
brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.” She
seems to be
attesting to the end of the era of kings.
William Blake "A negro hung by the ribs from the gallows" (1792) indicates the growth of abolitionism in the 18th century.
The African slave trade was not outlawed in the British Empire until 1807, more than 100 years after Behn's lifetime.
Behn's lying English governor takes the place of Satan, the one who brings dishonesty to paradise. "The Indians, believing only death would keep a man from his word, mourned for the death of the governor who promised to come; when he finally showed up, not dead, they asked: “what name they had for a man who promised a thing he did not do? The governor told them, such a man was a liar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of them replied, ‘Governor, you are a liar, and guilty of that infamy.’ They have a native justice which knows no fraud, and they understand no vice, or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men.”
Oronooko was later made into a stage play, as shown in this flier from 1776. (In the play, Imoinda is white, a reflection on Shakespeare's Othello.)
OTHER RESOURCES & AMUSEMENTS
Aphra Behn at
Luminarium includes a list of links to works:
Aphra Behn Society homepage
Aphra Behn at Lit-Arts
U Texas Aphra Behn: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww02/AphraBehn/index.htm
Annotated Bibliography of Oroonoko Jack Lynch
PBS Online: Africans in America:
Women writers from England
If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.
Mrs. Behn's portrait cir. 1675 by Mary Beale, a renowned portrait painter of the 17th century.
Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess